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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Social Networks, Dark Networks, and Les Misérables


I recently published a book ("Disrupting Dark Networks") on the use of social network analysis to disrupt or destabilize dark networks, that is, groups that seek to conceal themselves and their activities from authorities. While the term is typically used to refer to terrorists, gangs, drug cartels, arms traffickers, and so on, it can also refer to benign groups, such as Zegota, the predominantly Roman Catholic underground organization that helped Jews survive Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII.

What is social network analysis (SNA)? For starters, it's not the same as tweeting messages or checking-in on Facebook although the pattern of tweets and the connections between friends can be analyzed using SNA. Instead, SNA is a collection of theories and methods that assumes that the behavior of actors (whether individuals, groups, or organizations) is affected by their ties to others and the networks in which they are embedded. Rather than viewing actors as unaffected by those around them, SNA assumes that we are social beings whose interaction patterns affect what we do, say, and believe. We know, for example, that people who have ties to people involved in a church, synagogue, temple, mosque, etc. are much more likely to join that church, synagogue, temple, mosque than are people who don't have such ties. The same is also true of social movements, such as the Civil Rights movement or the Global Salafi Jihad. People were/are far more likely to join if they know someone who is already involved.

In short, social networks not only enable and constrain behavior but that they are also chock-full of meaning, and as such help us make sense of our world, shape our preferences, and influence the choices we make. That's why a primary goal of SNA has been to develop metrics that help analysts gain a better understanding of a particular network’s structural features. And although organizational theorists tend to explore such questions with the goal of identifying factors that will help strengthen organizations, those who study dark networks are generally more interested in identifying those aspects that will undermine them.

Take, for instance, the graph at the top of this post. It presents the social network of the characters in the novel, Les Misérables, which comes with the SNA software package, Gephi. A tie is drawn between two characters (nodes) if they co-appear in the novel, node color indicates the various subgroups to which each character belongs (determined by a clustering algorithm), and node size reflects the number of connections each character has to other characters. Not surprisingly, the ex-convict Jean Valjean, the novel's central character, is the largest node. Not surprisingly (since he spends a good deal of the novel on the run from Inspector Javert), he is a cluster unto himself (he's the only red-colored node), which suggests that he is something of a loner. That said, he is closely tied to his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her (eventual) husband, Marius Pontmercy. He is also tied to Inspector Javert, who for most of the novel, is obsessed with putting Valjean behind bars.

The network, of course, is not just a dark network; it is, instead, a mix of light and dark networks and what is light and what is dark depends largely on one's perspective. However, if it were a dark, one could possibly use SNA to disrupt it. For example, if one was interested in influencing Valjean (in a negative way), he or she would probably want to target Cosette or Marius if they couldn't target Valjean directly. Or again, if you look closely at the graph, you'll see that the light green cluster on the right is composed primarily of the "Friends of the ABC," which is a revolutionary student club involved in the Paris uprising of 1832, clearly a dark network in the eyes of French authorities. Because of the interconnectedness of the group, simply removing one person (e.g., the leader, Enjolras) probably wouldn't cause it to fall apart. Instead, everyone in the group would need to be silenced (a tall order) or the group would need to be isolated (e.g., by discrediting it) in order to render it ineffective.

I've posted previously on social networks and how they can be used to disrupt terrorist networks ("Social Networks and the Fight Against Terrorism"). In that post I also reference an article in which my co-author (Nancy Roberts) explore the various ways that SNA can be used to disrupt terrorist networks ("Strategies for Combating Dark Networks"). The article's abstract is as follows:
Our goal in this paper is to explore two generic approaches to disrupting dark networks: kinetic and non-kinetic. The kinetic approach involves aggressive and offensive measures to eliminate or capture network members and their supporters, while the non-kinetic approach involves the use of subtle, non-coercive means for combating dark networks. Two strategies derive from the kinetic approach: Targeting and Capacity-building. Four strategies derive from the non-kinetic approach: Institution-Building, Psychological Operations, Information Operations and Rehabilitation. We use network data from Noordin Top’s South East Asian terror network to illustrate how both kinetic and non-kinetic strategies could be pursued depending on a commander’s intent. Using this strategic framework as a backdrop, we strongly advise the use of SNA metrics in developing alterative counter-terrorism strategies that are context- dependent rather than letting SNA metrics define and drive a particular strategy.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sandy Hook, Gun Control, and America's Gun Culture

I recently  rewatched the original Star Wars movie, and my son remarked that given all the time and money the Empire spent building the Death Star, you'd think it would've been able to make invulnerable to attack. Perhaps, but I've yet to meet a technological marvel that is flawless. The Death Star's like Achilles, whose entire body was invulnerable except his heel. The movie's broader point, of course, is that nothing's completely invulnerable; everything has an achilles heel.

The desire for, but the impossibility of, invulnerability was driven home to me after a gunman walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were children. I'd like to believe that there's something we can do to prevent all such tragedies, but I'm skeptical. Many believe that gun control's the answer, but I don't think it's the silver bullet that many believe it is. To be sure, states with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths ("The Geography of Gun Deaths"):
Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48)... While the causes of individual acts of mass violence always differ, our analysis shows fatal gun violence is less likely to occur in richer states with more post-industrial knowledge economies, higher levels of college graduates, and tighter gun laws
(Note: Correlation coefficients range from -1.00 to +1.00)
But even those states with gun control laws haven't completely eliminated firearm deaths. Moreover, correlation doesn't prove causation. One could argue that states with a higher proportion of people who oppose gun ownership and use are more likely to pass gun control laws. Thus, it is the cultural opposition to guns that leads to fewer gun deaths, not the legislation itself.

I'm inclined to think it's a little bit of both. Indeed, I believe the much larger problem that confronts us is  what is commonly referred to as America's "gun culture," that Wild-Wild West attitude that seems to permeate American society, in which people think they're Marshall Dillon, Rowdy Yates, Artemis Gordon, or Rooster Cogburn and believe that guns are one of the few things that help keep all that is evil in the world at bay. My sense is that until our culture is transformed from one that glorifies gunslingers to one that doesn't, tragedies like Sandy Hook will continue to happen with disturbing regularity.

What evidence exists for our gun culture? Well, as the graph below illustrates there's little doubt that the US is a violent country (from "America is a Violent Country"):


This, of course, doesn't prove that we have a gun culture, but it is certainly consistent with it. Interestingly, as the graph below indicates, the South is the US's most violent region ("Assault Deaths Within the United States"):


In fact, I recently heard (although I can't find the citation -- I'm working on it, though) that cities and towns in the South are more likely to contain the word "gun" in their name.

Some argue that the real problem is religion (read: Christianity). People note that that the US is a very religious country and that the South is the US's most religious region, and ipso facto conclude that the solution is to turn everyone into secularists. However, as I noted some time ago ("More God, Less Crime"), empirical studies suggest just the opposite. Byron Johnson reviewed 273 studies on religion and crime published between 1944 and 2010 and discovered that 243 (90%) of them found that increased religiosity is connected with significant decreases in crime and delinquency, while 24 (9%) found no relation between religion and crime, and only 2 (1%) found that religiosity is connected with increased crime and delinquency. Moreover, recently the sociologist Rodney Stark ("America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists") found that the higher a city's church membership rate,
  • the lower its burglary rate
  • the lower its larceny rate
  • the lower its robbery rate
  • the lower its assault rate
  • the lower its homicide rate
In short, religion isn't the problem. I know this will disappoint some, but it's time to turn our attention to counteracting our gun culture. Of course, doing so will certainly not be easy. However, there is some evidence that its on the wane. Note that in the first graph above, the rate of assault deaths in the US has been declining since the 1970s, and as the political scientist Patrick Egan has noted ("The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States"), gun ownership in the US has been declining over essentially the same period:


While this is certainly good news, we can't sit still and let things take their course. Trends do not always translate to inevitabilities (i.e., they can be reversed). That's why in the short run gun control legislation is a good idea. It will help, but as I noted above, we are kidding ourselves if we think its a silver bullet. In my opinion, it only addresses the symptoms of a much larger problem. That is why in the long run, we need to actively work at counteracting America's gun culture. We don't live in the Wild Wild West anymore, and it's time to stop acting as if we still do.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

I recently posted an annotated list of my favorite Christmas movies ("An Annotated Baker's Dozen of Christmas Movies"), and like most people, "It's a Wonderful Life" makes my list. Since then, I listened to a Research on Religion podcast in which Tony Gill discusses the movie with author Jon Sweeney ("Jon Sweeney on 'It's a Wonderful Life'"), who recently wrote an article about the movie. The discussion is interesting in part because Gill isn't a huge fan of the movie, but he was intrigued by Sweeney's article. Here's an extended description from the Research on Religion website:
Every December, millions of people tune in to watch the quintessential Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. The iconic scenes of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) running through the town of Bedford Falls wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and the ending where we hear an ornamental bell ringing to tell us that the hard-luck angel Clarence has finally received his wings, are familiar to almost everyone. Some critics have tagged the film with the moniker of “Capra-corn” in reference to its director — Frank Capra — and its over-the-top sentimentality. But is it more than just a movie that shamelessly pulls at our heartstrings? Is there a darker side to the movie? And are there deep spiritual lessons to be gleaned from the film. Author Jon M. Sweeney who recently penned the e-book, The Spiritual Life of George Bailey, joins us to answer these questions. We explore the films origins in a short story written by Philip Von Doren Stern that was sent out as a Christmas card in 1943 and quickly put upon the silver screen by Capra in 1945. And then it is off to stroll through the streets of Bedford Falls, looking at a variety of critical scenes in the film that highlight both the important characters in the film and hint at what is to come. We meet critical players such as George’s father, Mr. Potter, Mary, and Sam Wainwright. Regular viewers of the movie will be familiar with the story, though Jon spices up various points of the plot with his own insights about human nature. We are then treated to Jon’s fascinating interpretation of the second-half of the film as he shows us how the themes of temptation, resurrection, and salvation play out through the story. Jon then reveals a suprising detail about the ending of the film that will shed some new light on how you watch the last ten minutes. We don’t want to reveal any spoilers, so you will have to listen to the end of the interview. Jon finishes with a brief discussion about what the Capra classic might tell us about our own lives in contemporary times, reflecting upon our need for community and connectedness. He may have even convinced Tony, who is a devoted Die Hard fan, to watch the movie for the first time in at least ten years.
For those of you who prefer reading over listening, here's a link to the article that Sweeney wrote about the movie ("Signs of 'Life'"), and here's an extended version of the article that is available as an Amazon e-book ("The Spiritual Life of George Bailey") for $2.99 (free to rent for Prime members with a Kindle).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mayan End of the World Humor

Last year I poked a little fun at Harold Camping and his followers for believing that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011 ("That was Awkward," "Empirical Support for the Rapture," "Rapture Reloaded," "Judgement Day"), and the world was going to end on October 21, 2011 ("Rapture Redux"). Being an equal opportunity satirist, here's a little end of the Mayan world humor.








Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Homo Economicus Christmas

Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of Freakonomics, likes to say that economists are a strange bunch, which is one of the reasons why over the last few years, he has featured something about economists and Christmas on one of his podcasts. As Dubner puts it, "It’s the latest in our annual series of explanations about how economists can take all the fun out of the holidays." This year ("Have a Very Homo Economicus Christmas"), Dubner asks economists how they go about their holiday shopping. In the podcast you'll hear from Steven Levitt (Dubner's Freakonomics co-author), Alex Tabarrok (who wants gifts directed to his “wild self”), Justin Wolfers (who has written about Christmas efficiency); and Joel Waldfogel (who's written a well-known paper, “Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” and book about gift-giving, "Scroogenomics).

In addition you may be interested in Cass Sunstein's article "Holiday Shopping Tips From Behavioral Economists"). Sunstein is currently a professor of law at Harvard and for a time worked in the Obama Administration. His article is a bit more practical and won't take all of the "fun" out of shopping for others.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Outliers and Success

Outliers: The Story of Success is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell in which he examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. His primary thesis is what he calls the "10,000-Hour Rule," namely that the key to success in any field is practicing it for a total of around 10,000 hours. In other words, if you want to become a great rock band (e.g., The Beatles), you need to play and practice at 10,000 hours together; if you want to become a great computer programer (e.g., Bill Gates), you need to work with computers and software for at least 10,000 hours. According to Gladwell, The Beatles got their 10,000 hours in by performing live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, and Gates got his 10,000 hours in after he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be "a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional," but that he probably wouldn't be worth US$50 billion. How does one get 10,000 hours in? By putting in 20 hours a week for 10 years. That's how.

I don't know if there's something magical about 10,000 hours, but what I do know is that success in any field requires lots of practice. Successful people are built not born. While innate ability (e.g., high IQ or athletic prowess) matters,
What really matters is the ability to get better and better gradually over time. As K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University has demonstrated, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously honing their craft. As Ericsson has noted, top performers devote five times more hours to become great than the average performers devote to become competent... 
John Hays of Carnegie Mellon studied five hundred masterworks of classical music. Only three of them were published within the first ten years of the composer's career. For all the rest, it took a decade of solid, steady work before they could create something magnificent. The same general rule applies to Einstein, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Freud, and Martha Graham...
In 2009 Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorenson completed a study called 'Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?'... There is no one personality style that leads to corporate or any other kind of success. But they found that the traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours. 
When it comes to athletics, I think certain caveats need to be noted, however. As I have noted in previous posts, there is overwhelming evidence that playing a single sport year round can be harmful (see e.g., "Overuse, Not Curveballs, Hurts Young Arms" "Kids and Sports: How Young is Too Young? How Much is Too Much?" "Aristotle, Virtue, and the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic"); thus, athletes, in particular young athletes, need to get their 10,000 hours in various ways (e.g., playing multiple sports) so that muscles that get a lot of work playing one sport get some time off while playing another. Otherwise, they run the risk of overuse and having their playing careers end far sooner than they would like.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What Store is This?

From (i.e., lyrics written by) Rev. Dawn Peters, Associate Minister of Congregational Life at First Congregational Church of San Jose:


What Store is This?
(sung to the tune of "What Child is This?")

What store is this, with deals galore,
And blue light specials evermore?
My Christmas shopping is out of hand
And kids only want name brands
Costco, Walmart, and Kmart too, I sure do spend a lot on you
Nordstroms, Apple, and Fry's, oh my
Black Friday makes me feel so blue.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

An Annotated Baker's Dozen of Christmas Movies (An Expanded Repost)

1.   A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

The best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is a close second). It's one of the few Christmas movies that actually includes a reference to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?", Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
Then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

2.   A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several good versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the version starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book; it is quite good.

3.  Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie, but it takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis (when he still had hair) as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman who a few years later plays Severus Snape), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...").

4.  Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)
Will Ferrell is great in this movie as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love (with Zooey Deschanel -- aka "New Girl"), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun (well, most of the time), as does the audience. Along the way you also learn about important things, such as the elvish four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.
5.   The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my all-time favorites. This movie is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (played Tea Leoni). Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), he's a very successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't gone to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and tries to convince her not to leave New York to take a job in Paris.

6.   Groundhog Day (Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell)

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant and egocentric Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, gets caught up in a time loop and ends up repeating the same day over and over again ("It's Groundhog Day!"). After indulging in hedonism and attempting suicide numerous times, he starts to re-examine his life, turns into a decent guy, and eventually gets the girl (Andie MacDowell). Director Harold Ramis (who starred with Murray in Ghostbusters) makes a cameo appearance as a local doctor. MacDowell is charming as Rita; just a year later she starred with Hugh Grant in another classic, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

7.   The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, troubled with guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach) who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have won a best supporting actor for his role. You may remember him in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" -- Wallach played Tuco (the Ugly). A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

9. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas.

10. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement (how many folks watch that movie any one? I haven't even heard of it!).

11. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

12. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After fthis, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

13. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's mom singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Religion


The film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tale, "The Hobbit," will be opening soon at movie theaters, and if it's anywhere near as good as "The Lord of the Rings," it should be great. I recently listened to a "Research on Religion" podcast in which Tony Gill interviews Professor Corey Olsen, a specialist in medieval literature and Tolkien scholar, about the movie, the book, J.R.R. Tolkien, his friendship with C.S. Lewis (author of the "Chronicles of Narnia"), the pagan and Christian sources lying behind Tolkien's (and Lewis's) novels, and more.

For example, while many commentators argue that Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" books are Christian allegories, Olsen disagrees because most of the characters in the books are drawn directly from Norse and Greek myths. Olsen notes that there are a number of myths about gods who die, and Lewis's purpose was to take that myth, place it in a different setting, and see what happens (so to speak). Olsen also discusses in some detail Tolkien's beliefs about providence, fate, and free will (which are very much informed by his Roman Catholic faith) and how these are reflected in his books. Olsen also notes that Tolkien didn't like Lewis's foray into Christian apologetics. Tolkien believed that was the priests' job, not Lewis's. Lewis, obviously, disagreed.

It's a splendid interview/discussion. You can download it from iTunes or listen to it at the Research on Religion website ("Corey Olsen on J.R.R. Tolkien, Religion, and The Hobbit"). Here's the description from the Research on Religion website:
Just in time for the release of the much-anticipated movie “The Hobbit,” we explore the life, times, and writings of J.R.R. Tolkien with Prof. Corey Olsen (a.k.a. “The Tolkien Professor”). We go over how Corey became enchanted by Tolkien’s writings and what Christians can take away from this genre of fantasy writing. Prof. Olsen reviews Tolkien’s influences, his fascination with mythology, and his ongoing relationship with C.S. Lewis. The conversation then delves into several spiritual themes that can be found in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, namely the issues of providence, fate, and free will. This podcast is a great primer for those heading out to the theaters over the holiday season and will provide a richer viewing of Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of this classic piece of literature.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Diversity For Thee But Not For Me

Over the past few weeks, our adult education class at church has been discussing Michael Sandel's most recent book, "What Money Can't Buy." It's an excellent and thought-provoking book, in which Sandel argues (in a nutshell) that there are some goods that shouldn't be subjected to market forces because they (i.e., the market forces) crowd out the norms and values generally associated with that good (for a libertarian critique of Sandel's book, see Tom Parker's review at the Cato Institute's website).

For our final forum, we watched a video of Sandel speaking at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival ("Markets and Morals: What Money Can't Buy"). In it Sandel is engaging as always, and, true to form, he encourages discussion/debate on the topic among those who were present. He closes his talk with a question and answer period. Although it was hard to hear (but Sandel repeated the gist of the question), one woman asked Sandel if he thought we, as a society, would be better off if we got our news from various sources, in particular from those that challenge our assumptions. Given his belief that hearing and deliberating multiple sides of an issue is a good thing, it isn't surprising that Sandel agreed.

Now, I may be going out on a limb, but I'm betting that this woman had in mind political conservatives who only listen to FOX News. That is, she believes or at least hopes that if they got their news from somewhere else (e.g., NPR, Pacifica Radio, New York Times), they wouldn't hold such conservative beliefs.  That said, my guess is that she didn't see any immediate need for her to watch, read, or listen to something other than NPR or the NY Times, such as FOX News, since she probably wasn't interested in having her worldview challenged or changed.

But, then again, who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe she avidly reads the NY Times while watching FOX News. You never know. Thus, in the spirit of encouraging the reading of diverse resources, I offer this array of my favorite theological journals that I try to regularly read and consider (I currently subscribe to Books & Culture, The Christian Century, and First Things):
  • Books and Culture (Moderate Evangelical)
  • The Christian Century (Moderate to Liberal Mainline Protestant)
  • Christianity Today (Conservative Evangelical)
  • First Things (Conservative Roman Catholic)
  • Sojourners (Liberal Evangelical)
Happy reading

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Lawyer and a Senior Citizen Are Sitting Next to One Another on a Plane...

A humorous story sent to me by a friend...

A lawyer and a senior citizen are sitting next to each other on a long flight. The lawyer is thinking that seniors are so dumb that he could get one over on them easily, so the lawyer asks if the senior would like to play a fun game. The senior is tired and just wants to take a nap, so he politely declines and tries to catch a few winks.

The lawyer persists, saying that the game is a lot of fun..."I ask you a question, and if you don't know the answer, you pay me only $5.00. Then you ask me one, and if I don't know the answer, I will pay you $500.00," he says.

This catches the senior's attention and, to keep the lawyer quiet, he agrees to play the game. The lawyer asks the first question. "What's the distance from the Earth to the Moon?" The senior doesn't say a word, but reaches into his pocket, pulls out a five-dollar bill, and hands it to the lawyer.

Next, it's the senior's turn. He asks the lawyer, "What goes up a hill with three legs, and comes down with four?" The lawyer uses his laptop to search all references he can find on the internet. He sends E-mails to all the smart friends he knows; all to no avail. After an hour of searching, he finally gives up.

He wakes the senior and hands him $500.00. The senior pockets the $500.00 and goes back to sleep. The lawyer is going nuts not knowing the answer. He wakes the senior up and asks, "Well, so what goes up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?"

The senior reaches into his pocket, hands the lawyer $5.00 and goes back to sleep.